Is the fragrance industry finally running up against human limits?

Recently in the online scent world there has been discussion about a lull or even end to a recent “Perfume Renaissance” (or something along those lines), which all might agree is due to the internet. However, it is true that there were trends in this industry that came and went well before most people had ever heard the word “internet.” Thus, it might be worthwhile to consider what happened in the past that might be relevant in this context.

One thing we know is that by the 1980s some major American houses decided to “amp up” their scents, eventually leading to a reaction against those who liked to apply too much. On the “men’s” side of the aisle, this resulted in scents like Cool Water and Acqua di Gio becoming very popular. I don’t have any sales figures so I cannot say if the “power scents” became a lot less popular or if there was just more variety, but that’s not related to the point I want to make here, which is that there may only be so many combinations of popular notes possible at this point, given technological limitations that exist.

For example, many among the aficionado crowd might rush to spend $200 on a 50 ml bottle of a scent that smells like smoky black tea for hours (such as the opening of Tea for Two) but it seems that achieving this quality is beyond the abilities of the perfumers of today (given what they have to work with, of course). By contrast, how many oriental, fougere, and gourmand scents have you sampled? Even more specifically, how many with that A*Men type of base (with obvious vanilla and patchouli) have you encountered? I am always surprised by how many powdery/woody/sweet/laundry musk scents I smell when I am in the public realm, and wonder if these people wear that kind of scent every day.

So, couldn’t it be that the fragrance industry has found a kind of “sweet spot” with regard to what most people like (or at least think they like, meaning that most have not done much sampling outside the “mainstream”)? Hasn’t this happened already with the food industry? Not long ago (perhaps a month) I saw a TV show that featured someone talking about how the food industry tries to make food that most people find it difficult to eat in small portions. It reminded me of a commercial from long ago (1983, apparently), in which it was claimed that you couldn’t just eat one potato chip:

Clearly, some like to try new things while others do not. Many of those who enjoy unusual scents may have become disillusioned because after a while they had largely exhausted the novelty factor, so to speak. Niche perfumers, if no one else, would like to accommodate these people, but they are limited by what is currently possible, technically. By contrast, most people may find a store like Sephora overwhelming in terms of what they view as a great variety of scents to sample. Now it’s true that once in a while a scent becomes popular after it had languished on shelves for quite a while, and perhaps this is similar to the “sushi craze” here in the USA (I don’t remember even hearing the word sushi when I was a child or in my young teen years, for example), but this is not predictable.

What we are confronted with, then, is an industry similar to a supermarket, where there are quite a few different kinds of bread you can choose from, but the variety in the “ethnic” or “health food” sections may be quite limited. Many aficionados didn’t like this state of affairs, which one could argue is understandable, but my question to them is, do you think there is an endless supply of highly unique scents possible, if only today’s perfumers were allowed to exercise their creative impulses? And if there were, how many bottles of each one would you likely buy? The point here is that I don’t think such people realize that there may be a limit to what is marketable, at least within the constraints of our current economic organization.

If there is a limit, as I think must be the case (even if one puts aside technical limitations), then one major factor will be biological. That is, for example, sweet scents will be more popular than sour ones. On a TV show called “Nathan For You,” a food company was tasked to make an ice cream that tasted like fecal matter. A few people were then asked to taste the creation (not being told what it was supposed to taste like) and none of them liked it, though one said it has a black licorice type of quality, if I remember correctly. It’s very possible that the person who had that opinion might like it if it something like strawberries and whipped cream were added, and of course this calls to mind the “animalic” notes that so many older scents contained.

Thus, we are back to where we started, in a sense. That is, “modern perfumery” (beginning in the late nineteenth century) eventually solved the problem to a large degree, in that many different notes (some odd or unpleasant in high concentration) have been used to create a great deal of olfactory variety. What the niche crowd seems to want is something that may not be possible, namely a scent with a few strong notes that is highly unique, and possibly even wearable in public under some circumstances! The aficionado who recognized the reality of the situation probably decided to sample many of the vintage greats as well as niche and even some of the more interesting designer fare, while the less realistic bemoaned what they viewed as a lack of variety, possibly giving up on the “hobby.”

As one of the former, I find that my “problem” is not having enough time, rather than not having enough scents. At this point, I own a few hundred bottles and just as many samples or decants. And I am actively trying to sell or swap off quite a few bottles, after having decided that while I may like the scents, I just won’t use them often enough, but more importantly, if and when I do, I find myself wishing I had worn a similar scent instead (for one reason or another). From their reviews, I have gotten the impression that many of the aficionados who have “left” would sample a scent, and even if they considered it “great,” not wear it again for at least a year. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand how they could write so many reviews in such a short period of time, unless of course they would sample several a day.

If you do sample several in one day (I saw Chandler Burr, for example, spray several scents in rapid succession to different parts of his body, then smell the area up close), aren’t you missing out on what the perfumer had intended, and thus aren’t you the cause of the problem? I’d like someone who thinks in this way to comment here and tell those of us who don’t understand (like me) why you don’t think there is enough variety or creativity. Do you want a scent that smells like rotten eggs and chocolate? That can be done, but who do you think is going to market it, and more importantly, how many bottles of it will that company sell? Would you buy a bottle, or just a sample? Why don’t you just create your own unique scent if it is that important to you? Many have done this with at little training or experience and at least reasonably good results (such as “Kerosene”)? Isn’t it time to “get real” and be thankful that there really is quite a bit of variety right now? I’m not sure if I am the first to have said this, but a favorite saying of mine is, “you’re never to old to finally grow up!”

Finally, to answer the question that is the title of this post, there seem to be several different limits, including technological ones and ones involving “market forces,” but I think the focus should be on those who bemoan the “lack of variety.” They are being unrealistic or lazy (not wanting to spend time seeking out rare gems on ebay, etc.), and I doubt they wear scents the way almost everyone else does (including those like myself, who only wear most scents we have a few times a year), meaning that they are mainly samplers who may have a few bottles they use for specific social contexts (in other words, scents that are not “challenging”). Perhaps the “limits” are just in the minds of those who think along those lines, unless one still has a childish vision of the world, reflected in the kinds of movies marketed to them; “a world where anything is possible.” No, that is not the world we adults inhabit !

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Filed under Criticizing the critics.

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